The Western World is for the next few years contemplating a very important issue. Almost one hundred years ago, millions of men (and some women) were sent abroad to fight in a war that warped and forever changed our very understanding of what war was to be. After the events of the Somme, the slaughter at Paschendelle and the nightmarish scenes at Ypres, it is a wonder that the leaders (read cowards) of the belligerent nations did not beg the forgiveness of their respective people’s instead of proclaiming victory and then riding roughshod over the rights of living veterans and paying lip service to the memory of the dead.
In Ireland the decade (or the ‘Long Decade’ as some call it) stands for a not too dissimilar idea. In Ireland, with as the parent of a friend put it in a slightly unconventional manner “our history of oppression, written in blood”, we are struggling to remember our part in the Great War. Ireland was then a rather petulant part of the United Kingdom, but had long signalled its desire to secede and establish a limited form of national self determination, more popularly known as Home Rule.
But I digress. Occupational hazard for a historian.
Irish remembrance had for decades after our attempts to get Home Rule sought to remember the “good”, casually dismiss or marginalise the different and bury the bad. The Easter Rising (Eiri Amach an Caisc, lit. The Great Awakening at Easter) is popularly remembered as the first step towards the establishment of the Free State; the deaths of children in the crossfire is largely obscured. The Anglo-Irish War is remembered for strong, defiant men fighting against overwhelming odds and succeeding amidst tyranny and brutal oppression by the forces of the Crown; the murder of some members of the religion of Wolfe Tone, the destruction of families, assassination of fathers holding children’s hands and savage cutting of young women’s hair in retribution are all conveniently brushed under the carpet. The Irish do selective amnesia better than any other race so are we surprised when the ENTIRE Civil War is generally left out of the popular narrative?
So to the meat of this post. Cumann na mBan was founded one hundred years ago last week. The organisation was a women’s republican organisation, established to allow Irishwomen to work towards the same ideal as the Irish Volunteers, an independent Irish Republic. Looking back at the extant documentary evidence, both Primary and Secondary sources, one cannot but be struck by the sheer singlemindedness of these amazonians! And thats exactly what they were, warriors. Some fought physical battles, more fought battles at home, defying convention, the community, the all powerful and pervasive church and in some cases even their own families in order to fight for Irish freedom.
But how in the narrative of this long long decade of commemorations are these women to be remembered? By their deeds? By their stories? Or will it be far more likely that after this last week, we will not hear much about this auxiliary, about these descendents of Maedbh and Grainne.
What people (ironically) fail to remember, or perhaps fail to fully grasp, is that remembering is hard work. It’s painful. The past is full of those little things, somewhat inconvenient and inconsistent with your smooth and unblemished narrative of national greatness which has been in vogue for so long.
And to truly, truly remember Cumann na mBan and all the women who campaigned outside its ranks in their own quiet way, to remember them we must acknowledge, fully acknowledge the violence and fear that permeated Irish society back then. And there was great fear and later suppression of that fear, burying and casual dismissal of sacrifice.
For those of you reading this blog I would encourage you to follow the link at the top to a short article by Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE, where you will be able to read a bit more about these remarkable patriots. For further reading I would suggest going to http://www.bureauotmilitarthistory.ie and searching for “CUMANN NA MBAN”
It is going to be a very, very long decade. But if it is done right, it can become the standard that other commemorations are held to. So we should remember sacrifices, warts and all.